A commentary on project portfolio and program management terminologies


and relationships with organisational strategy



By Alan Stretton, PhD (Hon)

Sydney, Australia


Difficulties with terminologies have long been a problem in project management. Aritua et al 2008 have described these difficulties as a terminological challenge, as follows.

One of the biggest challenges in research and practice of project management is the lack of consistency and uniformity in understanding and use of terminology. This difficulty is especially acute in the simultaneous management of multiple projects.

The simultaneous management of multiple projects is the domain of both program and portfolio management. Each of these has attracted more specific comment about terminological differences, and their consequences.

For example, Pellegrinelli 2008 made the following observation in relation to programs.

When individuals involved in projects and programmes meet, they each spend time trying to understand what the other means by programme management.

Aritua et al 2008 described terminological differences in the portfolio domain as follows.

Like programmes, portfolios do not have a uniform homogeneous definition. The term ‘portfolio’ has been in use for some time and is used across different sectors and throughout many and diverse organisations. It therefore has a multiplicity of meanings.                 

This commentary does not attempt a broad discussion on terminological difficulties in the portfolio and program domains, but focuses on a particular issue shared by both. This is the need to clearly distinguish between specific “front-end” versions of each on the one hand, and their more common usages in later activities on the other.

We start with some definitions/descriptors of portfolios at large, and then look at “front-end” versions, which are described as strategic investment portfolios. We then move on to some definitions/descriptors of programs at large, and a note on similarities and differences between programs and portfolios, before looking at “front-end” versions, which are described as strategic initiative programs. This will be followed by a brief discussion on relationships between portfolios, programs, projects and operations, after which we will illustrate how the “front-end” versions of the first two also relate to a recursive organisational strategic management framework.


We have just quoted from Aritua et al 2008 about the multiplicity of meanings that portfolios can have. More recently, Dalcher 2020 also observed that “portfolio management can mean different things to different people”. This is illustrated to some extent in the following sampling of definitions/descriptors of portfolios and their management from the project management literature.

Portfolios at large and their management: Some definitions/descriptors

…I define a portfolio as a group of projects that share common resources. …. Projects in a portfolio share common inputs.  (Turner 2016)

A project portfolio is a collection of projects to be managed concurrently under a single management umbrella where each project may be related or independent of the others.   (Martinsuo & Dietrich 2002; Thiry 2004)

A portfolio is a set of projects that are managed in a coordinated way to deliver benefits that would not be possible if the projects were managed independently.      (Platje et al 1994) [Artto & Dietrich 2004]

A portfolio is a collection of projects or programmes and other work that are grouped together to facilitate effective management of that work to meet strategic business objectives.   (PMI 2013c) [Turner 2016]

In spite of the fact that this latter definition of portfolio includes both programs and other related work, this PMI Standard for Portfolio Management specifically describes the latter as “project portfolio management”, as follows:      (PMI 2006b:5).

There are many types and varieties of portfolio management. This standard does not attempt to address all types of portfolio management; instead, it focuses on “project portfolio management”. Since project portfolio management is the focus of this standard, it is denoted throughout this document as simply “portfolio management”.

So, although the descriptor project portfolio as used above can also include programs and other work, it appears to be a quite widely accepted – and therefore hopefully acceptable – broad descriptor for portfolios in the PM context, and will be adopted here.

It is noted here that the lack of identification of the nature of ‘portfolio’ in the title of PMI’s “Standard for Portfolio Management” drew the following comment from Archibald 2009.

As an aside, I would like to point out that the omission of the words “project” and “program” from the title of this PMI standard is indicative of the less-than-broad perspective that seems to pervade PMI today. …..

This raises another terminological issue, namely differences between internal project management jargon, the usage of similar terms in the broader world at large, and related difficulties in securing common understanding between the two. I hope to look further at these types of internal-to-external terminological issues in a future article.


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How to cite this article: Stretton, A. (2021). A commentary on project portfolio and program management terminologies, and relationships with organisational strategy, PM World Journal, Vol. X, Issue VII, July. Available online at https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/pmwj107-Jul2021-Stretton-project-portfolio-program-mgt-terminologies-and-organisational-strategy2.pdf

About the Author

Alan Stretton, PhD     

Faculty Corps, University of Management
and Technology, Arlington, VA (USA)
Life Fellow, AIPM (Australia)


Alan Stretton is one of the pioneers of modern project management.  He is currently a member of the Faculty Corps for the University of Management & Technology (UMT), USA.  In 2006 he retired from a position as Adjunct Professor of Project Management in the Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), Australia, which he joined in 1988 to develop and deliver a Master of Project Management program.   Prior to joining UTS, Mr. Stretton worked in the building and construction industries in Australia, New Zealand and the USA for some 38 years, which included the project management of construction, R&D, introduction of information and control systems, internal management education programs and organizational change projects.  He has degrees in Civil Engineering (BE, Tasmania) and Mathematics (MA, Oxford), and an honorary PhD in strategy, programme and project management (ESC, Lille, France).  Alan was Chairman of the Standards (PMBOK) Committee of the Project Management Institute (PMI®) from late 1989 to early 1992.  He held a similar position with the Australian Institute of Project Management (AIPM), and was elected a Life Fellow of AIPM in 1996.  He was a member of the Core Working Group in the development of the Australian National Competency Standards for Project Management.  He has published over 230 professional articles and papers.  Alan can be contacted at alanailene@bigpond.com.au.

To see more works by Alan Stretton, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at http://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/alan-stretton/.